For those who don’t live in the appropriate climate for growing lemons, which in the U.S. indicates the vast majority of us, cultivating a lemon tree is possible but slightly different than how we typically envision trees. In this case, the lemon tree will have to be mobile, moving in and out of the house as weather dictates because it can only survive outdoors in USDA Zone 8 or warmer.
The commonly chosen strain of citrus for such an endeavor is the Meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange tree. The resulting fruit, while a lemon at heart, is a little sweeter than expected. The trees only get to be about 10 feet tall, allowing them to work as a container-grown tree, with the size of the container helping to determine how big the tree will become.
The other nice thing is that, given the right conditions, Meyer lemons are self-pollinating (one tree is all you need), prolific producers that put out fragrant flowers and have evergreen leaves. Growing one is a super fun and useful project.
What Are the Conditions
Meyer lemons will contentedly grow inside, but they do have a few requirements to consider if fruit production is what’s in mind. The tree will need to be near a sunny window, getting at least six hours of sunlight a day, or possibly grow lights if that isn’t possible. Ideal temperatures are in the 50 to 80-degree range, though the tree may survive a short spell of borderline freezing temperatures. And, it’ll need quality potting soil, with particular attention to having a well-draining structure, and regular feeding.
What the trees won’t appreciate is an abundance of wind or water, and freezing temperatures can be a death knell. In the springtime, trees should be transitioned outside only when temperatures stop regularly dipping below 50 degrees, and in the autumn, the tree should come in when the temperatures start falling below 50 at night.
What Are the Materials
When grown from seed, it can take up to seven years for the tree to produce, but grafted trees can provide fruit after only a couple of years. Young trees can be started in one-gallon pots, but a mature tree of more than six feet tall should be in something closer to a five-gallon pot.
In the pot, the tree should be grown in high-quality soil that drains very well. Lemons do not like “wet feet”. However, they do like some humidity, so it is a good idea to keep a mister (spray bottle) nearby or to have a tray of pebbles and water beneath the tree.
What to Do for Maintenance
Lemon trees will need regular feeding during the growing season. A nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer will need to be given monthly between April and September. During the colder months, this isn’t necessary. A foliar application of compost tea is a good way to supply some quick nutrients.
Additionally, the moisture level will need to be monitored. While lemon trees don’t like too much water, the soil shouldn’t be allowed to dry out. A finger stuck about three inches into the soil should feel moisture. Otherwise, the plant needs water. Yellow leaves indicate that the tree isn’t getting enough fertilizer or water.
Pruning is another part of regular maintenance. Especially with container-grown trees, sucker branches are very common. These should be pruned away immediately.
What More to Know
Once the tree is producing fruit, they should be allowed to ripen on the tree. Unlike some fruits and veggies, lemons will not continue to mature off the tree. Little green lemons that form on the tree will take several months, even a year, to ripen, so it’s important to be patient. Typically, when they are ready, they can be twisted off of the tree with ease rather than needing to be cut off.
Meyer lemon trees can be very rewarding. They are beautiful, have sweet-smelling flowers, and provide lots of fruit. There are some other varieties that also work well in containers: Libson dwarf, Ponderosa dwarf, and Dwarf Eureka. Whichever strain, it’s completely conceivable to have a lemon tree growing in most places in the US, and that’s an awesome addition to the homegrown pantry.
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